DEAR AMY: Four years ago, my sister's daughter committed suicide at the age of 20. We have all surrounded my sister with love and support. But increasingly my sister (always rather self-absorbed) has started to use this loss in a way that we simply don't know how to handle. She will make demands and decisions that are hurtful to family members. She displays a shocking lack of empathy toward others. If we communicate this to her, the comeback is that we don't know what it's like to lose a child to suicide. We're finding ourselves in the uncomfortable position of being held hostage by the tragedy because to comment further on her behavior makes us look brutally insensitive. It's as though she's saying to the world, "I lost a child to suicide, so you have to do whatever I want and feel really sorry for me while you're doing it, forever." In fact, my parents -- who of course lost a beloved granddaughter -- chose to leave town at Christmas rather than deal with my sister's drama. We want to help and not criticize our beloved sister. How should we handle this?
DEAR SIS: You cannot transform your sister into a different person. You cannot diminish her neediness, grief or emotional manipulation. But you can make ongoing choices about how you will behave. If you can draw a firmer line, even at the risk of seeming "insensitive" to her, you will be behaving in a way that is more honest and truthful. Ultimately, this may "help" her, although there is a possibility that it won't change her in the slightest.
You can say, "I'm so worried about you; I can't seem to help you. I want you to heal." There are a number of bereavement groups for survivors of suicide; she would benefit from attending meetings.
In terms of her insensitivity, you're going to have to risk hurting her feelings by saying, "You are being unkind. You are being disrespectful. This is hurting our relationship."